Freefall: Jerry Pournelle’s Review.

Flo Galaxy

Art: Mark Stanley. Background and color: The Old Wolf

I’ve mentioned Mark Stanley’s Freefall webcomic several times in this blog (just do a search, you’ll find the articles, but here’s one of my favorites).

I found a link to this article by Jerry Pournelle at the Freefall discussion forum, and was so impressed I felt I needed to share it. WARNING: If you decide to check out the strip before reading Pournelle’s review, start here. There is great value in working up to the current storyline climax, and not spoiling it. Unless, of course, you’re the kind who reads the last chapter of a mystery first, which is fine as well. Just saying.

I wrote this for another conference, but it occurs to me that while I have mentioned Freefall here before, it has been a while:

If you are not a fan of Freefall http://freefall.purr…100/fv00001.htm you ought to be.  Alas, it really will involve some time because it is a serial story, and the current panels are shocking — that is, they have a total surprise that I do not think many readers saw coming. I did not. And you should not see them before reading the rest of the story leading up to now.

The graphic novel — it has become as long as one — has as its premise that mankind has settled planets other than earth, and on one of them there is a population of a small number of humans and tens of millions of robots, all pretty well subject to Asimov’s three laws, only a lot of that is in my judgment better thought out than Isaac did.  The robots are highly intelligent and competent, but they are programmed to obey most human direct orders, and are very protective of humans.  This situation can be exploited by certain unscrupulous bureaucrats.

And into this mix comes Florence,  a Bowman’s Wolf, an artificially intelligent product of genetic manipulation, a genetic mixture of red wolf, dog and human genes with programming for artificial intelligence, born of a dog (St. Bernard) who was not her biological mother, and developing opposable thumbs, human speech, and the ability to walk on her hind legs although she runs much faster on all four legs. She wears clothes and has normal human modesty, and grew up in a household of humans, first as a pet then as — well, as an intelligent dog, then as a sibling. In theory she is the property of the human family. She has most of the powers of a real wolf and an IQ I would estimate at 140 or so.  She is a graduate engineer.

Also living on this planet is a single member of an alien species brought there as a stowaway from another planet — he is not artificially intelligent, he is intelligent, but he has nothing of the ethics and mores of a human and no human companionship. He is of a race of scavengers, and had thousands of siblings but he is probably the only survivor, and that because he stowed away on the human ship. He owns two robots and as owner he can give them direct orders.  One is a general purpose robot who likes him, and the other is his space ship which he managed to acquire as scrap and sort of get it running — but the ship considers him a danger to humans and hates him and would like to kill him but has been forbidden to do that.  It belongs to Sam.  Sam wears an environment suit which makes him appear sort of humanoid, but under that suit he is not humanoid at all.

All this happens in the first couple of dozen panels.  Sam acquires the Bowman’s wolf as his ship’s engineer. He does so by devious means, but she considers herself bound as a crew officer to be respectful to and obey the captain.  Only sometimes that would be disastrous and she’s pretty clever about playing logic games.

There are now two thousand four-panel pages of story, all relevant to the story line although some are not obviously so.  We are now reaching a climax, I think, and certainly the story has taken a surprising turn.  Meanwhile we have met many fascinating characters, including robot police who have to deal with humans, a veterinarian who sort of falls in love with Florence the AI wolf, a child who wonders if Florence and the vet will marry prompting Florence to be amused that the kid thinks all mammals have the same number of chromosomes, scheming officials who try to prompt a robotic war so they can get rich on scrap, and a great number of antics in which Sam acts quite morally for him == he is a scavenger, after all == but which drive the human authorities nuts. Especially since Sam is a very skilled thief, pickpocket, and jail breaker.

If you never heard of this you should try it: it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s the best of this kind of thing I know of. It is a combination of comedy of manners and some broad farce, and it mixes those elements well. It starts black and white but acquires better art and color at a couple of hundred pages (again four panels to a page).  It is now up to a couple of thousand and it will take you a bit of time to get from the beginning to where we are now, but I liked every episode I read.  I urge you NOT to skip ahead, and particularly don’t look at the current pages at all; catch up to them from the beginning. It will be worth it in my judgment.  The story is well developed and very logically constructed.  I’d like to see it win a Hugo.  It’s really good.

Recommended.

Be aware that the Freefall time line is mind-shatteringly slow. Day One begins on March 30, 1998; as of today, Florence has spent approximately three weeks on the planet’s surface. And for those of us who want to find out how the story ends, the three updates per week can be painful… but I’ve been hooked for over 10 years, and by Mogg’s tufted tail I am not giving up.

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If you don’t take my recommendation, take Pournelle’s… and enjoy.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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